Local user groups give people at all levels of expertise opportunities for learning
By Julie Moran Alterio
Westchester (N.Y.) Journal News
On any given weeknight, at a time of day when most people are washing the dinner dishes, reaching for the remote or putting the tots in the tub, members of computer clubs are assembling at libraries, coffee shops and middle schools.
Some go to learn to use that new PC a grandchild left under the tree. Some want to share decades of knowledge with newbies. And some simply enjoy a chance to chat with other people who know their gigahertz from their gigabytes.
Though the Web has millions of pages devoted to PCs and bookstores have rows of how-to manuals, people are still joining clubs to meet up with others as enchanted with computers as they are. "One thing that doesn't get translated through any of those manuals is the enthusiasm,'' said Robert Martin, executive vice president of RockMUG, a Rockland County, N.Y., club for people who use Macintosh computers.
These are people who happily spend hours talking about the latest release of Windows or an update to their favorite graphics program. Most use computers in their jobs, but few are technology professionals. Some, like Martin, are teachers. Others are doctors, lawyers, graphic artists, you name it even the odd physicist and disc jockey join.
There are hundreds of clubs across the country. People with all levels of experience are welcome at the meetings.
(To find out about the many clubs in Hawai'i, go to google.com and do a search on the words "Hawaii user group.")
"People say, 'I hope you don't mind that I'm coming to you with these questions,' and I tell them, 'That's what we do,'" said Dick Price, president of RockMUG.
No question is too basic. Al Katz is not the most advanced user in RockMUG he uses his Mac for e-mail and Web surfing but it doesn't matter.
"Sometimes it is over my head,'' he said. "But the most important thing is to have the ability to ask the question that to everyone else but you is very elementary.''
Jonathan Hauff, president of the Westchester PC Users Group, is one of the people who gets those calls for help. He joined the club in 1985 back when learning to use a PC was something to boast about. "The DOS manual gave you the commands in alphabetical order,'' Hauff said. "It was like trying to learn English by reading the dictionary.''
Because Westchester, N.Y. is in the back yard of the Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM Corp., many of the founding members of the PC club were employees of Big Blue.
Len Ginsburg, a Bronx resident and president of the New York PC Users Group, attended many of the Westchester club's early meetings, which were held at a local computer store. "They had cartons of IBM machines, and we used to sit on those,'' Ginsburg said.
Back in the early 1980s, joining a user group was often the only way to learn to use a PC.
"There was zero information available,'' Ginsburg said. "After plugging in the machine, you were on your own.''
Computer salespeople would often send customers to local clubs, said Judy Lococo, a former president of the Association of Personal Computer User Groups (apcug.org). Today, there are Web sites, magazines and radio shows spouting computer info. That's cut down on the percentage of computer users joining clubs, she said.
Many such users live in California, birthplace of the PC. Florida is also a hot spot because a growing number of retired people are taking up computing as a hobby. "It's the graying of the user groups,'' Lococo said. "You don't see as many young people.''
Retirement communities sometimes form user groups, as is the case at Heritage Hills in Somers, N.Y., where the 100 or so computer club members reflect the 50-plus makeup of the condominium complex.
Robert Derene, a retired advertising writer who moved to Heritage Hills four years ago, has been using computers since the days of the original Apples and IBMs.
He learned when he started his own ad firm because he wanted to avoid hiring a legion of secretaries to type up campaigns for such companies as Polaroid, Volkswagen and American Airlines.
Today, he helps fellow members with glitches, breakdowns and outages of all kinds.
"Often, it had happened to me the week before,'' Derene said.
Manuals aren't much help.
"In the old days, they used to be 1,000 pages thick. Now they're only 20 pages thick and they say one thing: Use the on-screen help program, and that's hard for an older person,'' Derene said. "Vision is a big problem, so reading complicated instructions on screen is difficult.''
Senior citizens have a love/hate relationship with the machines.
"The people who are successful with it love it. For people who are just frustrated, for one of a dozen reasons, they hate it. But everybody, when they get an e-mail from their grandchild, loves it,'' Derene said.
Many clubs attract retirees, partly because parents of young children rarely have weeknights free for meetings, said Hauff, who at 41 is one of the Westchester club's younger members.
Personal computer clubs date from the 1970s, when aficionados built machines from scratch and invented an industry in the process, said author and computer journalist Steven Levy.
The Homebrew Computer Club looms large in the short annals of computing history. Founded by a cadre of expert programmers and engineers who weren't afraid to "home brew'' their own machines, the club's members were among the most influential in Silicon Valley. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak showed off the company's first personal computer at one of the meetings, which were packed with hundreds of computer scientists ready to throw off the shackles of mainframe computing.
The founders combined expertise in computers with a free spirit sensibility left over from the 1960s, Levy said. The egalitarian format they devised for the meetings question-and-answer session, speaker's presentation and chit-chat afterward persists.
"They really set the template for computer user groups,'' Levy said.
If today's PC users are less familiar with the inner workings of their computers, they are also doing more with their machines. People are creating music CDs, editing digital movies and building Web pages.
Small-business owners want to learn how to manage networks and use financial software. Clubs have responded to these diverse interests by creating special interest groups or workshops.
"It used to be that you could cover everything in 12 meetings a year,'' Hauff said. "User groups that haven't changed from that model have suffered in membership quite a bit.''
Many of the members have a strong spirit of community service. Some, like RockMUG's John Kesecki, recondition computers to give to people who can't afford a new one. The Suffern, N.Y., resident shares computer know-how he developed during 30-plus years as a programmer and systems analyst at NBC.
"I enjoy it, and I think we make a contribution,'' he said.